This study investigated conceptual representations changes in bilinguals. Participants were Indonesian–English bilinguals (dominant in Indonesian, with different levels of English proficiency) and a control group composed of English-dominant bilinguals. All completed a gender decision task, in which participants decided whether English words referred to a male or female person or animal. In order to explore conceptual representations, we divided the words into gender-specific and gender-ambiguous words. Gender-specific words were words in which conceptual representations contained gender as a defining feature, in both English and Indonesian (e.g., uncle). In contrast, gender-ambiguous words were words in which gender was a defining feature in English but not a necessary feature in Indonesian (e.g., nephew and niece are both subsumed under the same word, keponakan, in Indonesian). The experiment was conducted exclusively in English. Indonesian–English bilinguals responded faster to gender-specific words than gender-ambiguous words, but the difference was smaller for the most proficient bilinguals. As expected, English-dominant speakers’ response latencies were similar across these two types of words. The results suggest that English concepts are dynamic and that proficiency leads to native-like conceptual representations.
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This study was supported by Research Grant JCUS007/2014/LAS awarded to the second author by James Cook University, Singapore. We are grateful to Dr. George Jacobs and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, and to Yvonne Yen for her assistance with data collection and coding
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